The Importance of Digestion (From Top to Bottom!)

file3011257997439 In my view, even if you smoke or are obese, the food you put into your mouth is the most important factor to determine your overall health. If you eat well your health improves; if you eat badly, your health deteriorates. Simple.

 

 

Well it should be simple but food and nutrition have become complicated over the last century. When we “process” food it can become difficult or impossible to digest. Add to that these other factors – we now eat foods that are not from our evolutionary diet, foods are often genetically modified, traditional food preparation has been replaced with super-fast methods and in many instances, cookery skills have been lost. Probably the most important is learning to cook from scratch using tried and trusted traditional methods and starting with the best ingredients, preferably organically produced.

We eat because we need nutrients which our bodies convert to compounds which are used in the hundreds of body processes that go on every second of our lives. Even if the food is the best, we still have to absorb and utilize these nutrients – and therein lies the rub!

Nutrition is not just filling our stomachs with any old food or a few vitamin tablets. Nutrition encompasses all of the following – the correct food being chewed, swallowed, digested (see below) absorbed and utilized. When any of these stages are omitted either within our control or without it, proper nutrition is forfeited. Let me explain.

When we anticipate or smell food, already our bodies begin preparation for digestion. We salivate, our stomachs rumble which indicates that the digestive juices are being produced. This enables various digestive enzymes to do their work before the next stage can commence.

Chewing food begins the digestion of carbohydrates and it is made more liquid. giant_panda_eatingThis is necessary if all nutrients are to be extracted. Swallowing begins the muscular wave (peristalsis) throughout the intestines to push food to the next stage of digestion. When food enters the stomach, protein is broken down by the hydrochloric acid contained in the digestive juices. The enzymes present continue the digestion of carbohydrates and begin the break-down of fats and proteins. When this is achieved, the small intestine continues the process using bile from the gall bladder and enzymes from the pancreas. Providing there is no disease in the small intestine, many nutrients and water are absorbed here. As the process continues into the large intestine, more fluid is absorbed and some of the B vitamins are created. The end of the scenario is a trip to the loo! This removes that which cannot be digested and other unneeded substances.

As you can see, there are many stages to digestion – which means that there are many ways for things to go awry. The food you eat makes the enzymes, saliva and gastric juices, so if your diet is poor, the situation moves from bad to worse.

Addressing the stages -
In the mouth:  If teeth are bad, the mouth is sore, dentures are poorly fitting, food may be poorly chewed or even avoided altogether.
In the stomach: Too little acid, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), ulceration of the stomach lining, frequent heartburn or a hiatus hernia and many more conditions can interfere with the initial break down of foods. This is especially true of vitamin B12.
In the small intestine: Food insufficiently digested in the stomach will be problematic, poor microbial mix or insufficient beneficial bacteria, Crohn’s and celiac disease, duodenal ulceration, poor bile and pancreatic enzyme production and other diseases  and insufficiencies will produce incomplete digestion here.
The large intestine: Diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (IBD), poor muscle tone (from years of the wrong diet), insufficient good bacteria, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) will all disrupt the final stages of digestion.

There are all sorts of ways that we can become mal-nourished, even in our land of plenty. Of course, if there was nothing you could do about it, I wouldn’t be writing this! There is plenty you can do to optimise your nutrition.

  1. Choose the best food you can afford and learn how to cook it. (This book is an excellent start!) I won’t go into the minutiae of as there is lots of advice in my other blogs.
  2. Ensure your teeth are in good condition.
  3. Eat slowly. Chew thoroughly and don’t drink much with food as this dilutes the needed acid in the stomach. People who suffer indigestion and GERD should not drink half an hour before or an hour after meals.
  4. Eat fermented foods sometimes – sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt.
  5. Practice relaxation. Stress is very damaging on the digestive system at every stage.
  6. Ensure that meal times are just that. Make time to sit down and enjoy your food. I absolutely believe in chatting over a meal as this slows things down and is conducive to good digestion and not overeating.
  7. When you first feel the urge to go to the loo, please go!  Putting it off is damaging to the muscle tone of the bladder and the rectum.

There has to be at least one thing you can do to improve your digestion. One step at a time..

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Thinking of Becoming Vegetarian? Please Read!

Fancy being vegetarian or vegan? There are some extreme diets too such as fruitarians and breatharians which are both self explanatory and have little to recommend them! Before embarking on any diets, it is as well to keep some facts in mind. So often decisions are made on limited knowledge and in the case of what you eat, this can have serious consequences for your health.

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The definition of “diet”, from one source is “the usual food and drink of a person or animal” but so often it is synonymous with weight-loss regimes. The trouble is, most of us are unaware of what our “usual” diet should consist of! It does not matter where in the world you are from, we all need the same nutrients – although how we obtain them is often different. Therefore the diet of humans has to be one which provides all the nutrients that have been shown to be necessary for growth and health.  Sound reasonable? I would add here that necessary nutrients are being discovered all the time and for this reason, your main source of nutrition has to come from the food you eat, not from supplements.

Currently, there are about fifty known nutrients – too many to list here! However, there are some vital facts that must be taken into account.

  • Nutrients work together, not independently.
  • If you are ill, some nutrients may not be absorbed properly.
  • Some foods inhibit the uptake of certain nutrients.
  • Some foods use the available nutrients for their own metabolism thus robbing the body.
  • Some foods, whilst being sound nutritionally, will only give these up when properly prepared.
  • Where and how your food is produced will determine how nutritionally valuable it is.

I will just talk about the not too extreme form of vegetarianism. Those that adopt this way of eating do so for three reasons generally – religion, animal welfare and health. The first is difficult to argue so I won’t! All I will say is that I have been contacted several times by people needing help with gut issues who are from this category. 1008594_80327405The animal welfare reason is one I do sympathise with as I was vegetarian for ten years during my early adulthood for this cause. It is possible to be healthy if you are in this category but care must be taken with food choices if all nutrients are to be obtained. Those who choose vegetarianism for health reasons are often the ones who can succumb to ill health due to the wealth of misinformation that is currently available. These people often choose low-fat food options, eat lots of grain products and never venture out into the mid-day sun. They usually take supplements and they can be found at the gym or pounding the pavements several times a week. I am sorry to generalise but I have met these people during the last twenty-plus years of giving health advice as a nurse. This is not lifestyle which provides optimal health.

There is much that can be done to improve the usual vegetarian diet but it takes a little more thought and food preparation than for the meat-eaters. Here are some points to consider:

  1. Vitamin B12 is the most problematic vitamin for vegetarians (and especially vegans). It is only bio-available from animal products and although it is present in some vegetable matter, it is in the wrong form for humans. Your diet must contain pastured organic eggs, milk and cheeses (preferably raw) and fermented dairy such as yogurt and kefir.
  2. Many vegetarians will eat copious quantities of grains and these are the foods which rob the body of nutrients, especially if not carefully prepared. The same is true of legumes which often feature as a source of protein in vegetarian diets. Click the highlighted words for information regarding preparation.
  3. When you eat large amounts of grain, your vitamin C requirement is increased. Obtain this from salads and vegetables rather than from lots of fruit and juice which will increase your sugar intake.
  4. Grains change to sugar in the gut which can lead to insulin sensitivity and diabetes.
  5. Meat, its fat and offal contain the fat soluble vitamins which are vital for the lining of cells, hormone production and integrity of the gut lining. When these are not eaten the diet must include eggs, cheeses and plenty of deep yellow butter.
  6. The body needs copious amounts of vitamin D3 which must be obtained from the sun.

My recommendations for a healthy diet and lifestyle can be found here.

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Kefir – The Super-Probiotic

You’ve heard of probiotics but you may not have heard of kefir (ka-feer). This could be seen as the king of the probiotics, not only due to its very impressive variety of probiotic organisms, but also due to the amount of these organisms in a “dose”. Yogurt is good but kefir is wonderful!

Kefir is a fermented milk product which starts with kefir “grains”. This has nothing to do with cereal grains but refers to their appearance. Frankly, this still does not describe the kefir starter, as it looks more like mini cauliflowers!

The origins of kefir seem to be the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. The story goes back to around 3000 BC but no one really knows how the grains came to existence as no one has been able to replicate them. They are an entity just as we are – a mixture of bacteria and yeasts. After all, in terms of cells, we’re about 90% microbes and only 10% human!

2013-10-31 13.05.37Kefir nutrients will only be as good as the milk it is made from. If you use raw milk, you will be providing the correct food for the grains. Other milks will work too but the nutrients will vary. The grains are very forgiving just like any other life on Earth, because life wants to live. Probably the next best option would be organic unhomogenised milk. If you are lactose intolerant you could use organic coconut milk. I have never done this but I have been told that it is very good.

Making the kefir is child’s-play. You put the grains into a glass or ceramic jug/bowl, add about 3-500ml milk, cover and wait! Leave on a work surface in the kitchen. How long you wait depends upon how you like it and how warm it is. In the UK in November, it takes my kefir about 36 hours to thicken slightly, develop a fizz. Strain the grains from the kefir which can then be stored in the fridge with about 150-200ml milk for a few days until you make the next batch, or freeze them if you don’t need them for a bit. Nice but not essential is to give it a short secondary fermentation – I usually do and most often use a couple of lemon slices. Store the kefir in the fridge and have a small glass daily or use in ice-cream, smoothies or whatever you like! As the grains grow and multiply, it would be a good idea to put some in the freezer anyway, in enough milk to cover – in case you have problems with your in-use grains.

“It has a “magical” quality as no other food has this nutritional profile.”

The benefits to health are enormous – trillions of beneficial microbes, B vitamins (including B12), enzymes, minerals, protein and fats. It has a “magical” quality as no other food has this nutritional profile. It is well tolerated by most people and has benefits for sufferers of allergies and gut disorders plus it supports the immune system. In fact, if you have any health issue, kefir is a great way to aid your recovery.

Kefir grains are available in some health food shops but look on-line – they are both cheap to buy and ship and providing you look after the grains, they will last forever. As they grow  you can pass some to friends!

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B12 – The Finicky Vitamin

Along with the other B vitamins, B12 is responsible for releasing energy from food, healthy nerves, the formation of blood and other cells, mental health and much more. Deficiency at its worst causes pernicious anaemia, (possibly) contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, psychoses and heart disease. The symptoms that often present initially are mood swings, insomnia, lacking energy and tingling in the hands and feet.

1426234_63077721It is very easy to become vitamin B12 deficient today. Life is so very different to how it was one hundred or even fifty years ago when home cooking was all that was available and nothing as wasted. We are a “fast” society now and everything has to be pronto – many don’t cook anymore – preferring microwave meals. We eat on the hoof just to fill our stomachs quickly with scant regard for the food’s nutritional value or whether we will digest it properly. It is incredible to me that people complain about the cost of food whilst buying ready meals and takeaways and it will contribute to becoming B12 deficient in our modern times.

Even if you care about your health, it is possible to become deficient in this vitamin. Those who are vegetarian through choice could be at risk. Likewise those who are vegetarian or vegan for religious or other reasons often miss out on this essential nutrient.

Some illnesses prevent B12 being utilised. The reason I call this the “finicky” vitamin is due to its metabolism. Simply, a protein called “intrinsic factor” found in the stomach juices binds itself to B12 to allow absorption. Most foods are digested and absorbed during the long journey through the small intestine. Not B12 though! There is a small area between the small and large intestines reserved for just this purpose. Because of this rather complicated process, illnesses affecting the gut can disrupt it at all stages.

  • Fast foods; even if any B12 is present, they are consumed quickly with minimal mastication and washed down with a drink of some sort. If foods are not chewed thoroughly, they cannot be digested effectively in the stomach. When food is accompanied by large quantities of fluid, the stomach acid is diluted and therefore, the intrinsic factor will be also. This can lead to the use of…
  • Antacids, reflux and ulcer medicines; these lower the acidity in the stomach making the digestion of B12-containing proteins difficult to digest thereby preventing its release from the food.
  • Ageing; stomach acid naturally reduces as we age leading to a similar situation as above.
  • Gut disorders; people who suffer the diseases that cause ulceration of the gut lining and diarrhoea are at risk. This includes sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (IBD).
  • Other drugs; diabetes medications, statins, birth control pills and antibiotics. There is a more comprehensive list and lots more information here.

So what can we do to maximise our chances of maintaining optimum levels of B12? It 736236_94991508would be far too easy for me to say that those people suffering from illnesses should seek to become well again (and some of the diseases I have named here are reversible) but nonetheless, action has to be taken one way or another! The best way to supplement B12 is by injection thus bypassing the complicated metabolic process. Or by sub-lingual drops. This is necessary for vegans too, as useful B12 is only present and available in animal foods. For vegetarians – kefir, organic cheeses and eggs are essential. The best sources for the rest of us are organic offal meats, shellfish as well as the above. To improve the uptake of B12 chew food thoroughly, don’t drink too much with meals so as not to dilute stomach acid and eat slowly. To stimulate stomach acid, eat fresh sauerkraut as a part of your meals, or a spoonful just a few minutes before a meal. Apple cider vinegar can be used too.

Above all, if you don’t or can’t cook please do something about it. The health of families starts in kitchens!

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Supplements or the Natural Way?

One of the reasons that I rarely advise nutritional supplements is because in taking them, it is easy to over or under-do these chemicals. Whether the body has too much or too little of these substances, it will become stressed with ridding the excess or trying to meet the body’s needs, with insufficient.

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Nutrients cannot be seen in isolation. They work together, like an orchestra. Each depends on others to perform their role to ensure the whole is working effectively.

A side issue is that many supplements are poor quality and the nutrients are in the wrong form for our digestive systems. This is so often the case with vitamins D and B12 but there are others too. People who suffer IBS and other gut problems have even more difficulty with absorption.

To maximise nutrient uptake, food should be eaten in its natural state with minimal processing. We should also eat that which we are genetically programmed for. (Lots of information about this in other blogs.) There is little point in humans eating grass, even though it is probably full of nutrients – after all, cows love it!. Our taste buds tell us that we do not have the correct digestive equipment for grass and therefore cannot absorb its goodness. However, cattle make all these nuteients available to us if we eat meat!

Whilst all nutrients need others, there are some that are more important. Vitamin D3 needs several in order to be utilized properly. Firstly it is formed in the skin with the help of the sun. Then it reaches the bloodstream, ends up in the liver and is transformed into other substances for use. At each stage, a variety of chemicals are required to enable the function. Magnesium, vitamins A and K2, zinc and boron are the main players here.

Magnesium
This is one mineral that is becoming a problem. The soil becomes exhausted with modern farming methods. The best way to obtain a good amount is to buy organic produce and/or grow your own vegetables. Good sources are leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. This study shows the importance of magnesium for bone health in children.

Vitamin A and K
Again there are various forms of these vitamins and the most reliable way of obtaining them is from animal foods. Liver, eggs, golden butter and cheese are good for bio-available vitamins A and K2. Leafy greens are good for K1 and beta-carotene which is a precursor to vitamin A. For the best absorption of these, eat animal fat on your greens – a good knob of butter will do it!

Zinc
Meat, shellfish and nuts are good sources.

Boron
Leafy vegetables, nuts and avocados are reliable sources of this trace element.

Fritatta So, meals can be easily put together to maximise your intake of these important nutrients. Here are some examples:
Liver and onions cooked in butter and served with kale or broccoli
Cheese omelette cooked in butter with green veg as above
Avocado and prawns, good bread with lots of butter and a handful of nuts afterwards

Whilst there will be some vitamin D in the above meals, a more reliable source is from safe sun exposure.

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